Guest post by Libor Safar, Marketing Director at Moravia.

Things are easy when you’re big in Japan… or so go the lyrics of the 1984 hit from the German band Alphaville (remember, anyone?). The same holds true for enterprises. Yet achieving success in the Japanese market does not come easily, as many global companies have learned the hard way. All the more reason to cherish the fact that the next LocWorld conference will take place in Tokyo, April 13-15, 2016 — the first major localization event to take place in the country after more than a decade. So what are some of the things you need to know if you want to succeed in Japan?

It’s the economy, stupid

By the early 1990s, Japan was on a roll and its rise seemed unstoppable. The two decades that followed were characterized by three Ds — debt, deficit, deflation. No wonder the headline news about Japan has been predominantly bad for some time: a rapidly-aging and shrinking population, new challengers throughout Asia, strong yen hitting exports, deflation for more than a decade, debt-to-GDP ratio of 250% – and rising, corporate governance issues, 15 Prime Ministers in 20 years, natural disasters…you name it.

But dig deeper, and Japan continues to be a success story and a great market for aspiring global brands. The country is a leader in many industries and still the world’s third-largest economy. Its GDP at some $4.6 trillion is more than that of India and Brazil combined.

Yet for all the negative trends, Japan is essentially spearheading what will sooner or later befall most developed countries. If you are present in the country and understand the solutions developed there, you are well positioned to apply them effectively in other markets.

To succeed, offer something really valuable

Entering Japan with “bandwagon”, hard-to-distinguish products will not normally make it. Global brands need to offer something truly distinctive and innovative. If you introduce a product or service that works elsewhere but without much thought or customization for Japanese consumers, your chances of success are slim. Your go-to-market strategy for Japan needs to be carefully crafted; you can’t do everything the same way as in other countries.

Consider the success story of Starbucks. They entered Japan two decades ago, as their first market outside North America, and over time have become the most popular coffee chain in the country. The secret recipe? They did not just apply their global concept to Japan. They combined their trendy American style with the more traditional Japanese aspects to offer a tasty blend of the best of both worlds.

This includes customized products such as Sakura Frappuccino, lattes made with soy milk, or operating a number of “concept stores.” These are coffee shops that are designed Japanese-style for specific neighborhoods. They offer an even wider range of products inspired by Japanese traditions. And no, you won’t be normally asked for your name in a Japanese Starbucks, since the Japanese value privacy highly and would feel uncomfortable giving their name publicly to a stranger.

Don’t run things remotely

Many Japanese companies ran into major difficulties running their overseas operations, or acquired businesses, from within Japan, and are only now finding the courage to allow more autonomy, and even relocate their global HQs, outside Japan.

But the same applies to foreign companies in Japan. Having a local office and teams is crucial. You cannot effectively produce or sell in Japan without having empowered staff in place, even if you first start by working with a local partner rather than having your own country manager.

Integrate your Japanese teams well, while allowing them to do things the Japanese way. Respect the Japanese business practices. The marketing blend that Starbucks applies in Japan works well inside organizations.

Beware, also, what the Nomura Research Institute (NRI) catchily described as the “Galápagos effect.” That is, the tendency among some Japanese companies to create highly creative products or solutions that can only be used or applied in Japan, and have no use internationally. Think mobile phones that would not work outside Japan.

Everything you heard about Japanese localization is (probably) right

Japanese localization projects take more time than other languages, involve more steps, cost more? Maybe. But with some good planning and knowledge of the specifics beforehand, problems and headaches can be avoided. Here are some critical things to know.

  • Quality expectations are very high. Zero mistakes is the standard requirement.
  • The Japanese language is highly subjective and changing quickly. Styles are also generation-specific.
  • Language standards related to “spelling” or transliteration are not centrally controlled.
  • The Japanese prefer more pictures (visuals) than long texts. Japanese documents tend to contain many figures and screenshots. A beautiful layout is expected; one that is easy to read and understand.
  • Aesthetic quality of typical localized content is considered insufficient for the Japanese market. Expect aesthetic and subjective issues to be important.
  • Word order in Japanese is reversed, so it is necessary to restructure Japanese sentences, which takes longer. Reading is also context-dependent.

Japan is changing. It’s getting more globalized and more open. If you are not yet present in the country, now may be a good time to get started. See you at LocWorld30 in Tokyo?